ARTS Heavyweight champion

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS hard not to feel sorry for Ben Kingsley. "I would love to play the Joker in Batman," he said in 1990, after playing the lead in Shostakovich on Channel 4. Three years later, after his moving performance as the accountant Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List, he realised, to his horror, that he had played no fewer than 11 isolated, tragic figures since Gandhi in 1983. "This isn't funny any more," he said. "I'm just hoping some happier, more social sort of roles will come my way."

The bad news is that he still hasn't been asked to play the Joker. The good news is that his latest role - a suspected torturer and victim in the film version of Ariel Dorfman's play, Death and the Maiden - takes pride of place as number 12 in his list of heavyweights, among them Lenin, the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Dmitri Shostakovich, Basil Pascali, Itzhak Stern, and of course Gandhi. And like all of those per- formances, it's an extraordinary achievement: harrowing to watch, meticulously observed.

Kingsley is aware that he might seem a trifle dour. He takes acting more seriously than most, directing workshops and writing articles on the subject, and his preparation for roles is legendary, up there with De Niro and Brando. When he played Gandhi, a part which won him an Oscar, he learnt to spin cotton, practised yoga and lived on a frugal vegetarian diet. The sort of character roles which he has made his own are emotionally gruelling, dangerous even. Particularly the way he plays them.

"Schindler's List nearly wiped me out," he says. "I was pretty burnt out after that. I really had to consciously work hard on allowing the boundaries not to completely dissolve between myself and the character. We all know that if those boundaries get loose and wobbly, and out of the actor's control . . . there is a list of my colleagues who have had nervous breakdowns. It is a very serious business. And anyone who laughs at those who take risks and injure themselves psychologically or physically, ought really to examine what we do for a living. It's bloody hard, actually. It has its danger zones, and we have to learn to negotiate them."

So why, then, did he agree to do another harrowing role so soon after Schindler's List? Directed by Roman Polanski, Death and the Maiden has lost none of the psychological intensity of the original play. It is set in a nameless democracy which has recently overthrown its dictator and Kingsley's character, Dr Miranda, is suspected of committing hideous crimes under the old regime. One of his apparent victims, Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), confronts and subjects him to a brutal trial of her own. "After Schindler's List, I made a pronouncement that as an actor I was no longer in the victim business. But I was quite surprised at how easy it was to say yes when Roman asked me."

The film's political content made it a difficult film for Kingsley to turn down. In the Seventies and Eighties, he was closely associated with the Solidarity Campaign in Chile, Ariel Dorfman's home country. But one suspects it was the dramatic qualities which ultimately proved irresistible. Dr Miranda is a dream role, allowing Kingsley to play with the audience's constantly changing sympathies. And there is something about his stillness, his big and beseeching brown eyes, the measured rhythm of his voice, at once pensive and determined, which makes him particularly suited to the part and its inherent ambiguity. His searching gaze, the way he hangs his arms so straight by his sides, the snorting laugh - these are gestures which encourage rather than enforce interpretation. Is he demotic or just frightened? It was the same with Gandhi, in which he captured the vulnerability and persuasiveness of a wise old man with that flat-footed, strident walk.

There is one scene in Death and the Maiden which particularly sticks in the memory: Dr Miranda is tied to a chair, blood flowing down his forehead, his mouth bound up tightly with very real masking tape. A nave question to put to someone like Ben Kingsley, perhaps, but didn't it hurt? "Oh but it was wonderful," he grins, "it's all information from the actor. Just as much as when Sigourney says, `You f***ing c***'. Those are the words and that's what she says to me. She doesn't whisper `Sorry' afterwards. The tape is the tape, the words are the words, the blood did go into my eye. It stung."

He's a sucker for punishment, no question, but he seems to be thriving on it. He has finally learnt to make the creative leap, he says, between himself and his parts. He no longer walks around with his character welded onto his face day and night. "The rewards are much greater if you let go in the evenings, and make that leap from you to the character take after take, day after day. I think what I am enjoying now is learning to let go. I am OK."

Before Schindler's List took its toll, Kingsley was getting closer to realising his ambition of playing the Joker. In 1991, he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Meyer Lansky, the canny mobster in Bugsy. He played a menacing villain in Sneakers, and also appeared as vice-president in Dave, the political spoof with Kevin Kline as a presidential look-alike. Those films were the result of a conscious decision to court mainstream Hollywood, where they like nothing better than an English villain (Steven Berkoff, Alan Rickman, etc). But despite the work and a close friendship, forged by Schindler's List, with Steven Spielberg ("I can't imagine life without him"), Kingsley refuses to live in America. "I get very angry with this country, but I love the language, the culture, the people, the possibilities for new ways of thinking. I couldn't call anywhere else home." Home was North Yorkshire - where he was born, as Krishna Bhanji, in 1943 - and is now London.

Before Ghandi, Kingsley spent 15 years with the RSC and the National Theatre, playing the title roles in Othello and Hamlet at Stratford. He never went to drama school, but theatre ran in the family: he is the son of an actress, Anna Goodman, and a Kenyan-Indian doctor. Even so, Kingsley says it was only when he won his Oscar that he felt like a real actor.

For all Kingsley's comedic ambitions, there will be those who see Death and the Maiden and claim he is only capable of playing one kind of role. But when he does them this well, who cares? "I think that comedies are pretty hard to do, by the way," he says. "My next role is going to be Moses." Just for one moment I thought he was going to say Max Wall. "Moses is not a victim. He is in charge of his own calling. He is his own man." A bit like Kingsley, really.

Jon Stock

! `Death and the Maiden' (18) opened on Fri. Quentin Curtis's review appears in the main paper.